A crippling energy crisis has caused oil prices to soar over $7 a gallon. The US economy is faltering as a result and terrorists have taken advantage of the situation to strike. While the world threatens to spiral into chaos, a conspiracy is mounting. It is up to the US Army and the elite Task Force Talon to bring stability to US interests across the globe and keep the homeland secure.

This is the situation that the player is thrust into, and the story begins even as the game is being installed. The mission Act of War: Direct Action embarks on is to seamlessly combine Hollywood movie-making with a modern real-time strategy title. As typical as it might sound, Act of War does have an ace up its sleeve with its story, which is based on a novel by best-selling author Dale Brown.

With current events in the Middle East and gas prices continuing to climb, Act of War certainly makes for a timely release. It has the budget and it has the story, but was developer Eugen Systems able to pull it off? Let’s take a look and let the war begin!

Real-time strategy titles aren’t normally singled out as pushing the graphics envelope, but with the shift into 3D it appears that more and more is being asked of the engine and the hardware that drives it. One look at Act of War and you know that your system is going to be taxed.

The units and environment are detailed and look realistic. It’s refreshing to see such varied architecture throughout the different locations. Fire and explosion effects are marvelous, with thick plumes of black smoke marking the scene of oil refinery fires. We’ve seen them on television, so it is nice to see the little details taken care of. There are a number of these little details, from the smoking hulks littering the battlefield to the contrail left as jets scream overhead, these small touches really make the battlefield look alive.

We’ve certainly come a long way from the 2D sprites of yester-year. One thing that I often felt was passed over in the transition from 2D to 3D was the rich color palette. Act of War does a nice job of breathing life into the battlefield and recognizing that cities are indeed colorful places, not merely slate gray concrete and ebony towers reaching to the skies.

Just as the engines have changed, Act of War marks a change in the way full-motion video is produced and presented. Aside from the clip seen at the install, you won’t be seeing grainy mpeg1 video in Act of War. Instead, as the game is available only on DVD, you will be treated to DVD-quality video. It simply looks spectacular.

The music in Act of War is typical of what one would expect in a modern action title. It provides a good pace without being repetitive or intrusive. Often I will find myself turning music off, particularly in a FPS where you might be on the same level for some time, but in Act of War it added to the atmosphere the way it does in a good film.

Sound effects are crisp and clear, fitting the modern war setting. Tanks rumble and choppers whine overhead while little details like the rapid fire of machine guns sound notably different than the sniper rifle.

Though the voice acting is well done, it does tend to get repetitive once you find yourself managing your forces. Typical of the RTS genre, the responses you get upon selecting a unit wear out their welcome quickly.

One thing that can really make or break a RTS title is the control scheme. Act of War excels here, putting a good portion of the keyboard to work for you with various hot keys. Small details like double-clicking on a Marine to select all Marines make it much easier to coordinate attacks and juggle the numerous units onscreen. Of course the regular group selections apply, and there is even a menu option to keep the current group selected until another is selected which will keep you from losing focus if you click on an empty piece of land.

The camera is customizable, and the controls are easy to use. The camera can be zoomed into a single unit or zoomed out get a wide view. The camera can also be rotated 360-degrees or even set to chase a selected unit.

It is clear the team at Eugen Systems has played and studied the ins and outs of RTS control schemes. There really isn’t anything new, but more importantly there is nothing left out.

Act of War is a real-time strategy, and as such it follows the now-standard gameplay mechanic: collect, build, conquer. The game immediately dispenses with a lot of the resource gathering, focusing on only one item that you need to collect, US dollars. You can occupy banks, build oil derricks or even capture wounded men and vehicles to hold as prisoners of war. This might make it seem like you only need sit back and let the cash roll in, but remember, the enemy needs cash too, so they always have an eye on your prize.

You play as the US Army and a special anti-terror squad called Task Force Talon to do battle against the nefarious Consortium. Each has a similar core group of units as well as unique units. Like convention dictates, the each unit has strengths and weaknesses and battles boil down to an explosive game of rock, paper, scissors. Thankfully the units themselves are well-balanced, and despite the destructive potential of crowd-pleasers such as the Consortium Ebola II packing ballistic missile, you can easily counter it with a few well-placed patriot missile batteries.

The game itself is not overly difficult, and veterans of the RTS genre should be able to breeze through the single player campaign with minimal difficulty. The story keeps things interesting throughout, with movies playing before and after the missions and sometimes appearing in-game with newsflashes and updates. These movies and the action are well-paced despite some b-movie acting. One interesting option was the ability to select all the missions from the beginning, so if you find one too difficult you can always move on. You don’t get to see the video, but you are never stuck.

Once the conspiracy has been unraveled in the campaign there aren’t many compelling reasons to go through it again. Fortunately Act of War does have the expected single player skirmish (Engagement) mode as well as online and LAN multiplayer modes.

In Engagement, players can face off against computer controlled opponents. Unlike the campaign proper, the player can control Consortium forces in addition to Task Force Talon or the US Army. The multiplayer component features skirmishes and team battles, with practice rooms and ranked ladder matches. The waiting room is easy to navigate and finding an online match is straightforward.

Act of War is a surprisingly engaging title. The story is full of twists and turns, and the way the story is threaded into the gameplay keeps you involved. The game isn’t frustratingly difficult, and the option is there to skip ahead if you really need it. It’s also worth noting that the manual is actually useful, weighing in at nearly 100 pages.

Eugen Systems has created a great RTS experience with an engaging story and great use DVD-quality video throughout. While it lacks the name recognition and marketing dollars behind the Command and Conquer series, Act of War certainly compares favorably. While many titles claim to do just that, few of them do so with the technical skill and gameplay that Act of War provides.

If you are looking for a game firmly rooted in modern events and captures the same magic of the giants in the genre, then Act of War is your game.